Encountering Japan. Degas, Monet, Gauguin…


Few people know that the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, like Monet, Degas and Gauguin, were inspired by Japanese woodcuts.


The exhibition Encountering Japan. Degas, Monet, Gauguin… tells the story of this significant encounter between East and West. Ordrupgaard will present a long line of works by know as well as lesser-known woodcut artists and show how the Japanese influence is expressed in works of artists such as Manet, Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Gauguin and others from the collection of the museum.


Japanese Art and the West

For a long time, the rich art of Japan was unknown to the West. All contact had been banished through centuries, but in 1854 the country was opened to trade with the West, and trade agreements were made. Great quantities of Japanese woodcuts arrived at the art fairs in Europe. In Paris the woodcuts quickly became a sensation and at the World Fair in 1867 the wide public got the chance to experience a bigger representation of the Japanese art.


These impressions were crucial to the contemporary artists. The different images were a visual shock, and the Japanese woodcuts had fundamental influence on French Impressionism. Artists like Manet and Monet, Degas and Sisley were amazed by the surprising compositions, courageous cropping, and they let themselves be inspired by the different motifs. Evocative and poetic landscapes with depictions of fog, rain and snow – as they saw in Hokusai and Hiroshige – were to characterize the canvases of the French Impressionists.


The ability of endowing the artistic with a natural impulsiveness was in stark contrast to the academism and intellectualism of parts of the Western art. And ’japonism’ – as the fascination of Japan was denominated – became a part of a general current of a longing to return to origin and sensibility, innocence and imaginativeness. The artists began to change their view of their surroundings and changed the mimetic depictions in favour of a more decorative and flat imagery without shadows.


The Japanese Woodcut

The famous Japanese art of wood cutting is known under the name ukiyo-e, which in English means ‘the floating world’. The woodcuts are genre images with motifs from everyday life. They belong to a hundred year long tradition since the beginning of the 17th Century and bound to the flourishing city culture during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867). In the beginning the woodcuts primarily showed depictions of prostitutes, actors and sumo wrestlers, but in the 19th Century depictions appeared of landscapes and famous locations in Japan.


Originally, the woodcuts were considered vulgar. Later on, they were to be regarded as epoch-making. They were cheap to produce in great quantities and they reached a wide public. Today, Hokusai and Hiroshige – who established the landscape as an individual genre in the first part of the 19th Century – remain the most famous names, but there were numerous excellent artists.


The exhibition presents woodcuts from both the Edo- (1603-1867) and the Meiji period (1868-1912) in Japan; however, the focus is the 19th Century, where the woodcuts received great prestige. The exhibition shows a wider presentation of artists than usually experienced.


The woodcuts can be experienced for the purpose of their great aesthetic values alone; however, in the eyes of the Japanese ukiyo-e is more than artwork. The prints were an integrated part of their everyday life and functioned as decoration, as a way of teaching values and as presentation of the community heroes among samurais and the actors of the Kabuki theatre.


Mutual Exchange of Ideas

The both naive and brilliant imagery of the Japanese artists also became an endless source of inspiration for the generation of artists following the impressionists, and thus, they were to have decisive influence on key artists such as Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. The inspiration, however, was reciprocal since Japanese society and culture was strongly modernized with the return of the emperor and the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868.


Hereby, the Japanese artists were acquainted with the art of the West, and it was now their turn to be inspired. They discovered another way of colouring and powerful colour pigments like ’Prussian blue’. The delicate pastel tones were forgotten in favour of experimentation with pure colours like blue and red. The Japanese interpretation of Western art would again fascinate the Western artists and enhance the Japanese currents.


Even though the two cultures were strangers to one another to begin with, a very rewarding exchange of ideas happened between these two distinct parts of the planet.


The Japanese Collection from Rouen

The great, Japanese material – recently discovered from several collections in Rouen – originate from the very period where this cultural encounter happened. These collections urge considerations about the meaning of the encounter between different cultures and the reciprocal inspiration between art from the East and West.


The collection in Rouen contains real surprises and shows a very wide presentation of artists with a large number of original prints from the Edo- and Meiji periods. Not least the artists of the Utagawa School are strongly represented as are all fifteen volumes of the famous sketchbook, the Manga, by Hokusai. Additionally, the collection contains a range of fascinating miniature objects and traditional dolls.


In addition to the material form Rouen, the Ordrupgaard exhibition shows a number of works in Danish private ownership including Kunstindustrimuseet’s great collection of Japanese woodcuts – including some by Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro – acquired in the same period with works from one of the great Danish collectors of Japanese art, the art historian and painter Karl Madsen. The same goes for a number of Japanese books and objects from the National Museum of Denmark of which several items originate from Karl Madsen.


’Japonism’ in the Collection of Ordrupgaard

The collection of the Ordrupgaard museum contains a large selection of works by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Manet, Degas, Pissarro, Morisot, Sisley and Gauguin, who all developed their painting under influence from Japanese woodcuts. The Impressionists were fascinated by the motifs of the woodcuts and the focus on women doing their everyday activities, beautiful depictions of landscapes and the present weather, compositions with ornamental patterns and flowers, etc.


A number of the works from the Ordrupgaard collection is on display in the exhibition including works by Toulouse-Lautrec from Kunstindustrimuseet.


The exhibition is supported by:


Augustinus Fonden, Beckett-Fonden, C.L. Davids Fond og Samling, Oticon Fonden, Krista og Viggo Petersens Fond, Toyota- Fonden and ØK’s Almennyttige Fond


Montana has sponsored the exhibition showcases.


The images above:

Kitagawa Utamaro, 1791-1800. Japanese woodcut. Det danske Kunstindustrimuseum

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, 1893. Lithograp. Det danske Kunstindustrimuseum

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of a Young Girl. (Vaïte (Jeanne) Goupil), 1896. Oil on canvas. Ordrupgaard

Photographer Pernille Klemp


11 September 2010 - 20 March 2011

Previous exhibitions